Search for Survivors of Miami Condo Collapse Is Ending

Nobody had been found alive since immediately after the Florida building crumbled almost two weeks ago, killing at least 54. Still, officials had resisted abandoning the search-and-rescue effort.

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SURFSIDE, Fla. — Officials acknowledged on Wednesday that there was “zero chance” of finding any survivors in the pulverized steel and smashed concrete of what had been Champlain Towers South and said they would shift their focus to recovering the victims’ remains.

There had been no signs of life since the hours immediately after the building in Surfside, Fla., tumbled down early on the morning of June 24. Still, officials had resisted abandoning a search-and-rescue effort, even as the likelihood of anyone being found alive diminished each day.

The death toll climbed on Wednesday to 54, making it one of the deadliest structural collapses in United States history. The decision to change course, ending the rescue effort at midnight on Wednesday, came as 86 people were still classified as unaccounted for. Yet the move had already appeared to many as a grim inevitability.

“I think it’s realistic, based on the fact that when they brought down the second portion of the building they were unable to find any voids that they thought people could be staying in,” said Douglas Berdeaux, who learned on Wednesday morning that his sister-in-law, Elaine Sabino, 70, was among the dead.

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Emergency workers in the final hours of the lengthy search-and-rescue operation.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

He said rescue officials told families they had hoped survivors could be found in a stairwell or perhaps in basement areas, in the voids between cars. Instead, Mr. Berdeaux said, “There was nothing. It was all rubble, and crushed. Nothing.”

The search-and-rescue teams have had to navigate a litany of obstacles. Because of fears that the teetering structure that had remained standing could tumble down on top of them, the rescue effort was paused over the weekend as the rest of the building was brought down in a controlled explosion.

Then the outer bands of a tropical storm barraging Florida dumped heavy rainfall on crews, with lightning causing delays and strong winds making it difficult to use cranes to lift heavy debris.

As the days wore on, the emotional exhaustion of families, rescue workers and the officials leading the response became increasingly clear. Daniella Levine Cava, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, who emerged as a public face of the response with twice-daily briefings, wiped tears from her eyes on Wednesday after she announced that 10 more bodies had been found.

Later on Wednesday, after announcing the discovery of eight more bodies, she acknowledged the pain in telling families about the end of rescue efforts. But she said investigators had leveraged “every possible strategy and every piece of technology available to them.”

“At this point,” she added, “we have truly exhausted every option available to us in the search-and-rescue mission.”

Throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday, search-and-rescue teams continued to look for pockets in the debris where survivors might be found, but the prospect of finding anyone alive seemed increasingly unlikely.

“Just based on the facts, there’s zero chance of survival,” Assistant Chief Ray Jadallah of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue told families of the missing in a private briefing.

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“As the magnitude of this catastrophe continues to grow each and every day since the collapse, the community and the world are grieving,” Mayor Daniella Levine Cava of Miami-Dade County said.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

Chief Alan Cominsky of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue told reporters that rescuers had seen no indication that any of the recovered victims had survived the building’s initial collapse. He declined to say if search crews believed that anyone might remain alive in the rubble. But he added that the crews had not found any signs of life.

“We’ve been exhausting every effort,” he said, “and that’s where we are right now.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Chief Jadallah told families that the operation would transition from search and rescue to search and recovery. He said search teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Israel were in agreement with the decision. Chief Jadallah later told reporters that engineering factors played a role in making the decision, including that the building collapse was like a “pancake,” which he said, “gives you the lowest probability of survivability.”

“We need to bring closure,” Chief Jadallah said.

At one point in the meeting, a video of which was viewed by The New York Times, a woman thanked the officials for their work. The room erupted in applause.

Rescue teams had come from all over Florida, as well as Texas, Israel and Mexico, driven on by the anguish of onlooking family members who yelled out the names of their missing loved ones and stories of unlikely survivals from disasters past.

As impatience and frustration grew among family members of the missing, the teams on the pile continued looking for weeks, moving seven million pounds of concrete and other debris. The work was grueling and dangerous, with fires that burned in the rubble and the constant possibility of mounds of debris giving way. One rescuer fell 25 feet off the wreckage.

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The intact section of the Champlain Towers South was demolished Sunday night.Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

As rescuers dug through the pile, they found signs — wallets, old photos — of lives once lived. In some places, heavy machinery was required to lift concrete slabs. In other places, rescuers sifted through concrete by hand.

Officials said investigators had been able to confirm that about 70 people who are considered unaccounted for were inside the building when it partially collapsed. But investigators are still struggling to place roughly two dozen others who might have been in the building.

Those two dozen people were reported missing but have not been confirmed to have been in the building at the time of the collapse. Their status has added to some of the confusion around exactly how many people were in fact unaccounted for, a figure that has fluctuated.

“Usually, the reports are coming from a distant relative, or someone who wasn’t 100 percent sure if they lived there, but that they may have been in the building,” said Rachel Johnson, a Miami-Dade County spokeswoman. “It’s not verified.”

With those who are unaccounted for now presumed dead, in addition to the 54 confirmed dead, it means more than twice as many people were killed in the Surfside building collapse than in Hurricane Andrew. Andrew, a Category 5 storm that left at least 61 dead in 1992, has long been the benchmark for devastation in Florida.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the state attorney for Miami-Dade County, said on Wednesday that she had asked a grand jury to examine how any future structural collapses, like the one in Surfside, might be prevented. The review would take place “pending the conclusion of the long-term investigation that will yield the cause of the collapse,” she said in a statement.

“I hope as a result of their work,” she said of the grand jury, “the people of Miami-Dade will be able to rest better and sleep soundly knowing they are safe in their homes.”

Sergio Barth, the owner of a youth soccer academy in the Miami area, said on Wednesday that the shift in officials’ priorities after days of waiting for news of his loved ones was, in its way, a kind of positive development.

Mr. Barth wanted to know the status of his older brother Luis Barth, 51, a lawyer who had been visiting Florida from Colombia, as well as Luis Barth’s wife, Catalina Gomez, and their 14-year-old daughter, Valeria.

“For me, it’s better,” Sergio Barth wrote in a text message. “So they can find my beloved family.”

Mr. Berdeaux and his wife, Linda Howard, of Daytona Beach, Fla., learned that Ms. Howard’s sister, Ms. Sabino, was officially named among the dead at around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. The news was delivered by local police officers who came to their door.

It was later, Mr. Berdeaux said, that he learned the search-and-rescue mission would be called off.

Mr. Berdeaux said the rescue teams had been “exemplary” in their efforts. “They left nothing to chance,” he said. “Nothing. Every opportunity that they had to do something, they took advantage of it, every single thing.”

Giulia Heyward contributed reporting from Surfside. Campbell Robertson and Audra D. S. Burch also contributed reporting.

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